Strategic Leadership Demystified

The 6 elements of strategic thinking.

By Samantha Howland, Senior Managing Partner and Executive Development Director, DSI

Various global studies underscore the importance of strategic thinking as the single most critical capability in today’s organizations. A 2009 Management Research Group study of leadership effectiveness—based on 40,000 managers in 144 countries across 27 industries—found that being strategic was by far the most critical dimension of their organization’s future success (Robert Kabacoff, “The Strategic Leader,” Management Research Group, Web, July 31, 2012.).

Yet, according to Chief Executive Magazine, seven out of 10 leaders are not strategic (“Strategic Thinking Builds Competitive Advantage,” Strategic Thinking & Business Acumen Skills, Strategic Thinking Institute, Web, July 31, 2012, If this is such a critical part of leadership, why is strategic thinking so hard to measure and develop?

Building a Common Framework

In an era of unprecedented uncertainty, the ability to think strategically has emerged as an indispensable skill in helping leaders and organizations navigate change and sustain growth. Yet, for those charged with identifying and developing strategic thinkers, there is no clear path. Without a common understanding of the specific elements of strategic thinking, this critical capability cannot be effectively developed. As a result, organizations have relied on generalized leadership programs that lack focus, precision, and meaningful metrics. The consequence of this is playing out globally in the high failure rate of large organizations across a variety of industries—the average corporate lifespan has plummeted to just 40 years.

Based on more than 20 years of consulting experience, leadership development, and in-depth research in more than 176-plus countries, DSI formalized a new framework and assessment tool for measuring and developing strategic thinking in leaders and organizations.

The 6 Elements of Strategic Thinking

This frameworkis centered on six fundamental components:

1. Anticipate: Proactively monitor the market environment for changes both inside and outside your industry.

  • Gather information from diverse sources outside your industry/function.
  • Stay vigilant about weak signals and future forces that can blindside your organization.
  • Monitor how customers’ needs are changing.

2. Challenge: Question organizational and industry-wide assumptions that others take for granted.

  • Reframe the problem to understand root causes.
  • Identify and test long-held assumptions and conventional wisdom.
  • Seek out differentiated views to see other sides of an issue.

3. Interpret: Connect multiple data points in new and insightful ways.

  • Synthesize input from multiple data sources (customers, competitors, suppliers, regulators, partners, media, etc.).
  • Test working hypotheses before jumping to conclusions.
  • Entertain multiple interpretations of market changes and other data.

4. Decide: Balance long- and short-term value and seek multiple options for your decisions.

  • Strive to develop several options in your decision-making beyond the obvious choices.
  • Follow a systematic approach to making and evaluating decisions.
  • Balance speed and rigor when making decisions.

5. Align: Engage stakeholders to manage differences and create buy-in for initiatives.

  • Identify all individuals who have a stake in the initiative.
  • Understand stakeholders’ positions on the initiative and any misalignment among them.
  • Communicate the intent early, clearly, and continuously to all key stakeholders.

6. Learn: Reflect continuously on successes and failures to improve your performance and decision-making capabilities.

  • Conduct after-action debriefs of successes and failures.
  • Create stories about success and failure to promote institutional learning.
  • Identify and stop initiatives that are not meeting expectations.

What’s Your Strategic Aptitude?

DSI used this framework as the basis to create The Strategic Aptitude Assessment, a tool that enables leaders to identify and improve their strategic approach through actionable feedback for development. The assessment tool has been used by approximately 6,000 organizations across industries, including professionals from GE, Citigroup, Comcast, Lenovo, Merck, Northwestern Mutual, Pepsi, Prudential, and RBS.

Armed with a proven, research-based assessment tool that is focused on actions and behaviors, organizations can purposefully focus on building the strategic leaders necessary for success in this uncertain future. Now it’s your turn; see where you stack up! Visit the DSI Website to take the assessment today.

Samantha Howland is a senior managing partner at DSI, a leader in future-centered consulting.DSI provides adaptive planning and executive development to help organizations and their top talent excel. The firm’s customized approach is structured to help clients profit from realities that haven’t happened yet.

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